Florida has set a goal of having its public schools replace textbooks and other materials with technology by 2015. Wiregrass Ranch High School, which has tried to stay ahead of the technology curve since opening, launched a pilot project this year to see if such a change could succeed. It offered iPads instead of textbooks to 25 incoming freshmen and their teachers and challenged them to make 2011-12 a paperless school year.
Assistant principal Robyn White, who is overseeing the initiative, spoke with the Times about it.
Where did the idea come from? And how did your school get chosen in the first place?
We actually requested from the district that we do this iPad initiative. From research that myself and (principal Ray) Bonti were doing, we were noticing that other schools in the nation were using iPads instead of textbooks, and they were finding it cost-efficient, and that students were more engaged in their everyday learning. That's where we wanted to go. We are taking what the kids are using at home every day. We are taking the technology, and we are and bringing it into the classroom for the purpose of active engagement, individual student learning, so that they are going to take on some of the responsibility for learning on their own, through the use of this technology.
Why only 25 (students) to start with? And why freshmen?
Well, freshmen just because we want to see it through all four years. We expect these students will continue on through their senior year. The reason why it was only 25 is because we wanted to start with a small sample. Class size for high school being 25, it seemed like an obvious number. So that's where that came from. We had about 100 potential candidates. Of those 100, 79 applied. Then the committee reviewed all of the applications, which included an essay from all of the kids on why they should be part of the iPad initiative. And then we selected 25 from there.
You picked some really high-level kids — gifted kids and AP kids. It's not only going to be for kids who are in the higher level courses, is it?
No. It will not be just for students who are in the high-level courses. This year, the students were selected because we wanted students who were in four academic subjects. We wanted to practice with the academics, instead of starting it, for example, in an art class. Because of that — and knowing that we were having freshmen — the only way to ensure that was to use students that are in AP human geography.
As this grows out, it will include more?
Absolutely. That's our intention. We hope to expand this project next year with another group of honors-level students and but also a group of regular students: freshmen who may have a regular English class, a regular science class, a regular math class, and then pick an elective — for example, maybe Spanish or possibly art, something that is pretty popular with the freshman class.
How are you paying for this?
The payment for it came from district technology funds. If you think about the cost of an iPad vs. the cost of a computer, we can buy two iPads or possibly three for the cost of one computer. So bringing that technology in is something we are looking at school-wide as well as at the district.
So are you losing computers at the school then?
We did not lose computers.
Do you see this as something where you can prevent kids from using for fun, as opposed to learning only?
It's something that we are going to be investigating throughout the year. As of now, part of the acceptable use agreement is that they will not download any outside applications other than the ones that were provided. We're going to get their feedback on that. Because they may come back and say, 'It would be nice if we had …'
... Angry Birds.
Angry Birds. (laughs) I hope they don't say that. One of the apps we know is very popular for kids and adults is Words With Friends. It could have a very nice impact on students' vocabulary. That may be something we would consider doing, saying if you want that, you can go ahead and download that. But it's not something we've given a lot of thought to right now. That's some of the feedback we have to get from parents and students.
Long-term goal: To get rid of all textbooks for all students?
Long term goal would be to go completely digital.
If it's digital, it can be updated immediately vs. having a textbook for six years and having the information in it be outdated.
We're sitting here in a library, and I'm thinking to myself, I still like to read a book.
Believe it or not, you can download books on these tablets, and it has the ability to highlight, annotate. You can still do everything you would do with a regular hard book and save it. I have always enjoyed reading a book. But I will be very honest: Since I have had the iPad and I've downloaded the books they are going to be using in the classroom, I have found myself enjoying Great Expectations again as I'm going through it again. It's just something different. It is, for lack of a better word, fun to kind of see that I can turn the page with my little finger.
Is it going to be hard to bring the whole teaching staff on board?
I don't think for us it will be difficult, because our teachers are already used to the technology. Starting with the base of teachers who know we will become trainers not only here at Wiregrass, but we anticipate they will become trainers in the district, I think it will be okay. You're going to always have some teachers that are in the mode of, "I have to have a textbook in front of me." But I think if you can show them the advantages of what's going on on the iPad and that what they have as a hard copy is also available digitally, they will come along.
One of our concerns as we talked about it this summer is, it was my goal to make this 90 percent paperless. We didn't go with 100 percent because we know there's going to be some cases where we have to give them paper. But some of the things we investigated this summer were the ability for teachers to grade those papers on the iPad and return them to the students on the iPad. And there is an app for that, believe it or not.
There's always an app for that.